By Susan Carter
Doctoral students are often anxiously interested in what research shows about examiners. It is a useful practice for doctoral writers to measure their work against the questions examiners are known to ask before submission. It’s a writing task, revision not for grammar or punctuation or structure or referencing, but with the examination criteria in mind. And with those first readers in mind: the examiners. For those doctoral candidates whose examination proces includes an oral defence or viva, preparation for facing the examiners is a crucial part of completing the PhD.

Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem research doctoral examiners and examinations. When I placed their work in the writing section of my book on Developing Generic Doctoral Support, they worried I had made a mistake. However, I deliberately put them there because their research findings are so useful at the writing stage.

One of Trafford and Leshem’s earlier articles suggests that it is easy to guess the kind of questions you will get in the viva because the same clusters of issues underpin all examinations (2002, pp 7- 11). Then they provide a breakdown of predictable questions. To me this looks like a checklist against which doctoral writers can audit their work before submitting the thesis.

Trafford and Leshem cluster these predictable questions. Here I have clipped their work back to just what seems applicable to all doctoral research, regardless of epistemology or methodology—this is just a sample, and may inspire you to follow up their work.

Some predictable examiner questions from Trafford & Leshem 2002 that suggest defensive writing in the thesis before submission:

Cluster 1 Opening Questions
Why did you choose this topic for your doctoral study?

Cluster 2 Conceptualisation
What led you to select these models of…?
What are the theoretical components of your framework?
How did concepts assist you to visualize and explain what you intended to investigate?
How did you use your conceptual framework to design your research and analyse your findings?

Cluster 3 Research Design
How did you arrive at your research design?
What other forms of research did you consider?
How would you explain your research approach?
Why did you select this particular design for your research?
What is the link between your conceptual framework and your choice of methodology and how would you defend that methodology?
Can you explain where the data can be found and why your design is the most appropriate way of accessing that data?

Cluster 4 Research Methodology
How would you justify your choice of methodology?
Please explain your methodology to us.
Why did you present this in the form of a case study?
What choices of research approach did you consider as you planned your research?
Can you tell us about the “quasi-experimental” research that you used?

Cluster 5: Research Methods
How do your methods relate to your conceptual framework?
Why did you choose to use those methods of data collection?
What other methods did you consider and why were they rejected?

Cluster 7 Conceptual Conclusions
How did you arrive at your conceptual conclusions?
What are your conceptual conclusions?
Were you disappointed with your conclusions?
How do your conclusions relate to your conceptual framework?
How do you distinguish between your factual and conceptual conclusions?

Cluster 9 Contribution
What is your contribution to knowledge?
How important are your findings and to whom?
How do your main conclusions link to the work of [other famous scholars]?
The absence of evidence is not support for what you are saying and neither is it confirmation of the opposite view. So how do you explain your research outcomes?

Some of these questions are invitations to doctoral students to spell out things that they do actually know, but might not have articulated in the thesis. The list above could be a great help before the thesis goes over the counter to be sent to these questioning examiners. The list above, and several other lists from those who research examiners and examinations could be consulted.

If you have suggestions as an examiner, or know of other research on examiners’ questions that might help doctoral writers before submission, post a comment!

Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: A discussion. Innovations Education and Teaching International 45(4), 367-374.
Johnson, S. (1997). Examining the examiners: An analysis of examiners’ reports on doctoral theses. Studies in Higher Education 22(3), 333-347.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2000). Examining the doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. Studies in Higher Education 25(2), 167-179.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004). The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Trafford, V. and Leshem, C. (2002). Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: Predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 34(4), 43-61.